January near misses in Tourmaline, Windansea, Sunset Cliffs surf

The original story was published in the print edition of the San Diego Reader in February of 2023.

Last month, San Diego’s gnarly surf kept lifeguards busy towards the tail end of January. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department lifeguards even helped rescue folks from a plane that landed on the surf.

On January 19, before 8 am, Dan Schade was walking by South Carlsbad State Beach when “a plane passed me along the water a quarter a mile north of me right in front of the lifeguard tower,” Schade said in a 911 VIDEO NEWS clip. “[He] gently sat it in the white water about 30 feet from the shore. Luckily it was flat this morning; it’s 1-2 [footers]. If he would’ve done it yesterday or the day before, he would’ve been in some pretty big surf.”

Just south of Carlsbad and nearly a week earlier, Tourmaline had some 8-12 footers, Raliza Amato told me on February 5. Amato is a local surfer and mother who saw a fellow surfer in distress on January 13, shortly after she paddled out from Tourmaline Surf Park between La Jolla and Pacific Beach.

“I see someone floating without a board and yelling ‘Help! Please help!'” she continued. The distressed surfer was about 20-30 feet away from her, and “no one else is in sight or close enough to him. I look, and he has no board, so I start paddling towards him when another monster set comes towards us.” Amato recalled some waves measured 12 feet that Friday: “After making it past the three crashing waves, I hear sirens of the lifeguard truck in the parking lot, and I see a crowd forming and watching. The person is panicking and screaming hysterically at this point, and I genuinely think I would see someone drown for the first time in my whole ocean life.” Amato has been surfing for 18 years. “I’m sorry, but I can’t make it to you,” she yells to the surfer. “Then I turn the nose of my surfboard and my body towards the beach and start waving my arms wildly screaming, ‘Help, help, help!’ while simultaneously pointing towards the floating person that needs help. Within what felt like seconds, the Jet Ski comes and rescues him.”

On January 7, it seemed that San Diego Fire-Rescue Department lifeguards were the busiest in the month. The San Diego lifeguard’s Facebook page said the initial rescue launched at about 7:30 am at Windansea Beach when a male surfer’s leash broke. “The surf was so big and the rip current so strong that he couldn’t make it back to shore on his own. He became distressed and was spotted by SDFD lifeguards on patrol. They used a rescue watercraft along with two lifeguards in the water and safely returned the surfer to shore.” He was not injured.

In a second rescue in La Jolla a rookie surfer was riding a surfboard too small for the monstrous waves. He “was almost rolled onto the rocks by the waves,” said the lifeguards, who then hopped onto their rescue craft and rescued the newbie surfer, who was not injured.

The third rescue was at Sunset Cliffs in an area locals call “No Surf Beach.” “Several surfers experienced broken surfboard leashes and were caught in a massive rip current,” continued the lifeguards’ page. “Lifeguards deployed RWCs [rescue craft] and surf boats, and all were rescued and safely returned to shore.”

Around the same time, lifeguardsofsandiego posted a photo on their Instagram page of a rescued surfer whose surfboard was broken into pieces.

“Please do not try and surf or swim in these conditions unless you are ultra-experienced. SDFD Lifeguards warn that it will often take up to a half hour to return to shore in waves this big. It’s not only dangerous to be out there, but it’s also dangerous for lifeguards to perform rescues in these conditions.”

And why were the San Diego County waves so big last month? Amato, the 18-year-veteran surfer who spoke earlier in the article, explained. “It’s because of the dominant WNW (west/northwest) swell, storms happening right off our coast. We usually watch storms off the South Pacific during the winter because it’s their monsoon season and our surf season.”

And regarding the near-drowning surfer, she said, “The lifeguards told me afterward that his leash snapped in front of the pump house, and he was yelling for help. But because of the strong current and huge waves, they lost him. When I waved my hands and yelled, they were able to find him, and I am thankful to God that I was able to help that way. Thank you to the San Diego lifeguards — true heroes in this big surf season.”